June 27, 2017

City urges university to submit its plans for future expansion

Webster University Chief Financial Officer Greg Gunderson approached the podium at the Tuesday, Feb. 25 special Webster Groves’ City Plan Commission meeting with copies of Webster University’s Master Plan. He asked commission members to review the materials to better understand the university and Eden’s intentions.

Gunderson fielded questions from the commission on the Master Plan. Plan Commission Vice Chair Eric Romano asked why the university would not submit the Master Plan to the city to go through the formal process.

Gunderson said the university would lose control of the Master Plan if it were formally submitted to the city.

“The process, as I understand it, is the city council can modify the Master Plan, and modify it in any way they see fit,” Gunderson said at the meeting. “We lose control over our master plan. That is a challenge for us. The CUP process doesn’t create that challenge.”

Commission member Renee Ross said even if the university lost control of its Master Plan, it was supposed to be a collaboration.
At the Feb. 3 Plan Commission meeting, Gunderson urged the commission to table proposed changes to the Webster Groves’ zoning code. The changes would categorize Webster University and Eden Theological Seminary differently.

If passed, the proposed zoning changes would put Eden and the university in different educational zones, preventing them from sharing property. The Webster University 2012 Master Plan mentions use of property on Eden’s campus.The Conditional Use Permit (CUP) — voted down by the city council (see adjacent story on lawsuit) — sought to allow the university use of Eden’s Luhr Library and Wehrli House and clearance to demolish Eden’s White House.

The Webster Groves City Plan Commission voted on Feb. 26 to continue public hearings and postpone the vote on educational rezoning of the city. The board said it would need more time to gather information and discuss possible amendments to the proposed zoning code. At the Tuesday meeting, the board voted to continue public hearings at the March 3 meeting.

Eden would be placed in a district that includes educational facilities with less than and limited to 500 students, while the university would be placed in a district with more than 500.

Gunderson said the university did not feel the city’s master plan process was fair, and the CUP process had worked for the university until recently.
“We value the 50-year-long process that has worked efficiently: the CUP, and we found it to be an efficient process, and that’s what we’ve used up until now,” Gunderson said.

Plan Commission Chair Charles Sindell asked Gunderson what proposed zoning ordinances the university disagreed with.
Gunderson said the Master Plan does not require collaboration with city government, but with the public at large. Sindell said part of the issue was a lack of collaboration with the city. Gunderson disagreed.

“We listened. We listened to the city. We listened to citizens,” Gunderson said.

Gunderson said meeting the requirements of the city served as collaboration in the master plan process. He said, in the university’s opinion, the Master Plan meets the needs of all parties involved.

Plan Commission member Brandon Harp said the university’s Master Plan needed to be scrutinized by all parties involved: the city, university and public. He said the university hampered itself by not formally submitting the Master Plan to the city.

Harp said the city’s process for submission of a master plan serves as a way for the Plan Commission and city to look at the plan from an overall standpoint.
Gunderson said the restrictive nature of the city’s master plan submission process kept the university from submitting its Master Plan.

Several Plan Commission members said they still did not understand why the university was against the city’s Master Plan submission process.
Plan Commission Member Donna Miller said community groups were bitter toward the university. She asked Gunderson how the university would address the allegedly growing tension.

“I kept track at the last two meetings — of the positive and negative comments. People who have fears and people who embrace change embrace Webster,” Gunderson said. “The majority speak on our behalf.”

Gunderson said the university responded to concerns from City Council and residents. He said recently the university stopped the purchase of houses from residents in Webster Groves.

Mayor Gerry Welch said at a City Council meeting on Aug. 20, 2013, that while Webster University’s application for a CUP was about the use of three buildings, bigger issues needed to be addressed, including potential boundaries for university growth, a change to educational zoning and resident concerns regarding the university’s purchase of residential homes.

At the meeting Tuesday, Gunderson told the commission that by allowing the university and Eden to share property, there would be a reduced concern among residents regarding the purchases of residential homes.

“By allowing Webster and Eden to share property, you reduce the risk of those kinds of things happening, because it lets us, as our Master Plan identifies, address all of our needs.”

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